Mike Kunkel brought his distinctive style to the launch of this series, but as his issues became more and more delayed, the simple charms of his comics were replaced by the bland work of Art Baltazar, Franco, and Byron Vaughns. Baltazar and Franco, so whimsical and full of life on “Tiny Titans,” didn’t seem to have anything to say about the Captain Marvel universe, and it looked like they were just filling time until Kunkel returned. Which is what they were hired to do, supposedly.
But Kunkel never returned.
And as of “Billy Batson” #13, Mike Norton has replaced Vaughns as the regular series artist. Guess what? It’s a whole lot better now.
Perhaps Baltazar and Franco were merely filling time, telling uninspired stories for a few issues after Kunkel left, but after seeing how their “Billy Batson” stories read with Norton on the art, it’s much easier — and probably more accurate — to say that Byron Vaughns was the wrong fit for this kind of comic. Vaughns made the series look like a amateurish picture book, like something your grandma might pick up at a Scholastic Book Fair, just because it had a guy with a cape on the cover, and she knows how much you like superheroes.
Mike Norton, though, draws this as a rollicking action/adventure comic. He’s inking himself here, and he’s using a style I’ve never seen him use before — more loose, more expressive, less bound by the forces of Hogarthian “Dynamic Anatomy” or comic book conventionality. Norton has always had a little bit of a John Byrne influence in his pencil work, but it was barely perceptible, and only noticeable in the open faces of some of his characters. But in “Billy Batson” #14, Norton’s Byrne influence (though not slavish imitation) is far more evident, and it looks like a mix of unrestrained Mike Norton with a dash of John Byrne parody. And it looks a little like “Mad”-era Wally Wood, too. Reminiscent of the Superduperman and Captain Marbles conflict from decades ago.
The art works well, simply put. And it’s worth reading for that alone.
But Baltazar and Franco give us a worthy story as well, with Freddie Freeman and Black Adam. With Billy Batson and Mary Marvel zooming in to save the day, or at least give it their best shot. This is solid all-ages action, a classic kind of superhero story that follows up nicely on what Jeff Smith did on the four issue series that led to the Kunkel comic. And this issue ends with a surprise: a Black Adam Junior who is more than just a Johnny DC version of Osiris.
This series lost its way for a while, but now it’s headed in a much stronger direction. And if Norton stays on for an extended run, this could be the kind of series that’s worth paying attention to. Like the Mike Parobeck/Rich Burchett “Batman Adventures,” or the Mark Millar run on “Superman Adventures,” this is a comic that’s all about old-school action with a bold graphic style. Or, it is now.